Don't be fooled by health claims - A guide to reading food labels
Buying healthy food can be a challenge. Some food manufacturers use misleading tricks to convince people that their products are healthy when in fact, they are highly processed and filled with junk ingredients.
There are meant to be regulations for food labels, but they are complex, and manufacturers know how to manipulate them to their advantage.
Here are a few pointers on sorting the junk from the truly healthy foods.
Don’t Let the Claims on the Front Fool You
One of the best tips may be to completely ignore claims on the front of the packaging. Front labels try to lure you into purchasing products by making health claims. Quite often these health claims are misleading or even false.
Examples include many high-sugar breakfast cereals like whole-grain Coco Pops. Despite what the label may imply, these products are not healthy.
Study the Ingredients List
Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest. This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of. Scan the first three ingredients, if they include refined grains, a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is unhealthy.
An ingredients list that is longer than two to three lines is likely to be highly processed.
Watch out for Serving Sizes
Nutrition labels state how many calories and nutrients are in 100g of the product, and also give a suggested single serving size.
However, their suggested serving size is often much less than anyone else might call a serving.
In doing so, manufacturers try to deceive consumers into thinking that the food has fewer calories and less sugar.
If you’re interested in knowing the nutritional value of what you’re eating, you need to multiply the serving given on the back by the number of servings you consumed.
The Most Misleading Claims
Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy.
Here are some of the most common claims — and what they mean:
Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar.
Multigrain. This sounds healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. These are most likely refined grains — unless the product is marked as whole grain.
Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.
Organic. This doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.
No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.
Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Read the ingredients list to check.
Low-carb. Recently, low-carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods that are labelled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.
Made with whole grains. Just means there are some in there. If whole grains aren’t in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible.
Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, sugary breakfast cereals are often fortified with minerals and vitamins – they are still not healthy.
Despite these cautionary words, many truly healthy foods are organic, whole grain, or natural. Still, just because a label makes certain claims, doesn’t guarantee that it’s healthy.
Different Names for Sugar
Food manufacturers use many different types of sugar in their products to hide the actual amount.
In doing so, they can list a healthier ingredient at the top, mentioning sugar further down. So even though a product may be loaded with sugar, it doesn’t necessarily appear as one of the first three ingredients.
To avoid accidentally consuming a lot of sugar, watch out for the following names of sugar in ingredient lists:
Types of sugar: cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, evaporated cane juice.
Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.
Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.
If you see any of these in the top spots on the ingredients lists — or several kinds throughout the list — then the product is high in added sugar.
The Bottom Line
The best way to avoid being misled by product labels is to avoid processed foods altogether. After all, whole food doesn’t need an ingredients list.
Still, if you decide to buy packaged foods, be sure to sort out the junk from the higher-quality products with the helpful tips in this article.